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Making the images that’ll win the votes

Winning the hearts and minds of people has changed quite considerably in this country.

The African National Congress has moved from relying on the copywriting talents of activists surreptitiously spray-painting walls with creative gems like “Viva ANC” or “Voetsek, De Klerk” to the yuppie-infested boardrooms of Sandton, where most advertising agencies are located.

Here men and women whose business it is to convince you that using soap X is going improve your sex life have, after threatening the committed one with a Filofax, snatched the spray-can out of his hands.

The ANC has engaged the services of Hunt Lascaris subsidiary A-MC to change “Viva ANC” into a classy slogan. The NP is using a local subsidiary of international firm Saatchi and Saatchi, the agency that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. The DP has gone to the Jupiter Drawing Room.

The campaigns have been limited to the print medium because the various parties agreed there wouldn’t be any television advertising. This was an attempt to ensure that the groups with fewer resources, like Dikwanketla, were not disadvantaged.

So we won’t be seeing an opening shot of Nike running shoes toyi-toying on the lawns of the Union Buildings, or a soft-focus shot of a young Cosby-type kid and a blonde blue-eyed child holding hands, walking into the sunset with choral music in the background.

What we have had, instead, as the first shot in the struggle of boardrooms and briefs, is a campaign titled People’s Forums.

The campaign, run in major newspapers asks readers to send in their concerns about developments in the country and to suggest possible solutions. “Democratic parties all over the world never really involve their supporters in terms of changing policies,” says A-MC managing director Julian Ovsiowitz.

“What we wanted to do was to go out there and talk to people on the ground and act on the feedback.” Go out there and act on the feedback they did, following which they made more ads showing how democratic the party is now, instead of forms to fill in, you get double-page spreads with photographs of people standing up at people’s forums and venting their spleen.

This is, indeed, potentially the most effective of campaigns, for it gives the target market — whose views have traditionally been ignored by both the government and the advertising industry — the impression of involvement in the development of policies within the government-in-waiting.

Account executive on the ANC account, Ken Modise, concurs that the people’s forums “gave people a voice in terms of how they feel and what they want”. Although the campaign is national, “there will be regional adaptations. For instance, in Natal the key thing is peace, and if you go to the Western Cape the key issue there is affirmative action, because the majority of the people there are coloured.”

The National Party, on the other hand, is not taking the portrayal of the ANC as the Cosby Kids lying down. In the past the NP as the government would declare a state of emergency and raid neighbouring states for terrorist cells in an attempt to win over “moderate South Africans”. Now the detention order has been replaced by adverts.

The first ads tried to subvert the ANC campaign by claiming that the problem of the country was the ANC and the solution was the NP. A number of grey ads followed before the one everyone noticed: an advert that criticised Winnie Mandela’s election as president of the Women’s League of the ANC.

“What has happened up to now,” says Saatchi and Saatchi managing director Eldad Louw, “has been basically tactical advertising, responding to things as they happen.”

The problem is that very few of the things that have happened have tainted the golden boys and girls of the struggle. The ANC is going to have to do something as stupid as, say, last year’s South African Defence Force raid into Transkei for its supporters to see their former oppressors as saviours.

Louw is quite aware that it will take more than advertising to win those votes. He is, however confident that “some of these messages have changed people’s minds”.

“We have changed,” is the claim of the NP campaign. This change, according to Louw, started 12 years ago and since then “they have changed a hell of a lot”.

After telling the electorate that the NP has changed, the campaign has to follow up with the information that “because the NP has changed it has altered the face of South Africa dramatically”.

Somewhere in the middle of this feud of the Filofaxes is the Democratic Party. It started off by employing the talents of some party hacks who came out with the hearts-and-minds winning poster: “We did not kill people. Only apartheid.” Ja, single-handedly, responded some bored hearts and minds.

So the DP employed the talents of the Jupiter Drawing Room. Their campaign will break this coming Sunday, says account director Carolyn Wibberley. They waited so long because they do not have the high budgets which the ANC and NP have, she says.

“The most important aspect the DP has to tackle is that people are saying voting for the DP is a waste of time.” The DP — unlike the ANC, which is gunning for the big prize of two-thirds majority, or the NP, trying for 40 percent of the vote — is not putting forward any figures, in case it’s surprised closer to the election.

“We are going after the non-ANC vote, people who are not going to vote for the ANC, possibly because they want to see a strong opposition.” What the campaign will say, she explains, is that “it is the quality of the opposition that counts”.

All the people employed in the advertising of the various parties are convinced that as the day of elections approaches the mud-slinging will become dirtier. “What has been happening so far,” says Louw, “has been sparring, and not boxing.”

Maybe with the election approaching, there will be more boxing and less grey advertising. If the political parties are going to spend money on advertising agencies, they’re going to have to entertain the consumer. That’s the least they can do if they want his (or her) vote.

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Bafana Khumalo
Bafana Khumalo works from South Africa. Activist on Gender, HIV & human rights. Co-Founder of Sonke Gender Justice. Member of Men's sector & MenEngage. Pastor of the Lutheran Church Bafana Khumalo has over 2042 followers on Twitter.

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